MIAMI A U.S. judge on Friday denied former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega's demand for a speedy return home when his U.S. prison term ends next month and said nothing stood in the way of a French extradition request.
Noriega's defense attorneys argued in court this month that his designation as a "prisoner of war" after his arrest during the U.S. invasion of Panama more than 17 years ago entitled him to immediate repatriation after his scheduled release from a Florida prison on September 9.
But senior U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler said protections awarded Noriega as a POW under the Geneva Conventions placed no restrictions on his possible extradition to a third country such as France, where he faces up to 10 years in prison on various money-laundering charges.
Noriega, 72, is due to appear before U.S. Magistrate William Turnoff next Tuesday when France's request for his extradition is expected to move forward. The United States supports France's request.
Hoeveler, who presided over the 1992 Miami trial in which Noriega was convicted on U.S. drug trafficking, racketeering and conspiracy charges, was instrumental in winning recognition of the former Panamanian military intelligence as a prisoner of war and entitled to protection under the Geneva Conventions.
But in his written opinion, he said he never meant to shield him from future prosecutions for crimes he is alleged to have committed outside Panama or the United States.
"It appears that the (French) extradition proceedings should proceed uninterrupted," Hoeveler said.
Noriega faces much more serious charges in Panama than in France. He has been convicted in absentia in his homeland for murder and human rights violations, including the 1985 beheading of Hugo Spadafora, an outspoken opponent.
His attorneys say he wants to go home to clear his name there.
Recent reforms of the penal code in Panama, however, could mean that Noriega would serve his the 20-year prison term awaiting him there under house arrest, because he is over 70 years old.
Frank Rubino, Noriega's lead defense attorney, said he had spoken briefly with his client after Hoeveler's ruling and that he was "very disappointed" with the judge's ruling.
"He was hoping the judge would have done the right thing and sent him back to Panama, his home country," Rubino told reporters.
(Additional reporting by Jim Loney in Miami)